Prominence, California, June of 1883
He didn't even attempt to draw on the intruder; it was far too late for that. The cold weight of a pistol barrel rested in the hollow of his throat, and he heard the click of the hammer as it snapped back.
"Don't move." The voice unnerved him almost as much as the situation in which he found himself, for it might have come from his own throat. The tone, the timbre, were his.
"I didn't plan on it," he answered. It was still dark in the jail cell, where he had made his bed after a night passed in the card room behind the Yellow Garter Saloon, and all he could make out, looking up through his eyelashes, besides the blue-black barrel of the gun, was a glint of light hair and an impression of wolf-white teeth.
Delicately, the stranger relieved him of the .45 in his holster, still strapped to his hip, spun it fancy-like on one finger, and laid it aside with a clatter. A match was struck, and Shay caught the sharp, familiar scents of sulphur and kerosene, mingled. Thin light spilled over the jailhouse cot and dazzled him for a moment, but he knew he was still square in the other man's sights.
The visitor whistled low through his teeth. "So," he said. "It's true."
Shay blinked a couple of times and then squinted. Except for a few minor differences, mostly matters of grooming and deportment, he could have been looking at himself. The other man's hair was a shade or two darker than his own; the stranger wore a full beard, too, and a cheroot jutted from between his teeth, but virtually everything else was the same -- the lean build, the blue eyes, even the lopsided grin, tending toward insolence. "What the -- ?"
The specter chuckled. "Hell of a thing, isn't it? You always sleep in your own jail cell, Marshal?"
Shay ventured to sit up, and the other fellow didn't shoot him. Taking that for a good sign, he swung his legs over the side of the cot and made to stand, only to find himself looking straight up the barrel of the pistol.
"Not so fast."
With a sigh, Shay sat down again. "Who the devil are you?" he demanded. Now that he was sure he wasn't dreaming, he was beginning to feel fractious.
His antagonist grabbed the rickety chair in the corner of the cell, turned it around, and sat astraddle of the seat, all in virtually one motion. His left arm rested across the back, the .45 dangling idly from one gloved hand. An odd sensation prickled Shay's nape, but he forbore from rubbing it. "Maybe I'm you," the man said. It was downright irritating, the way he took his sweet time answering.
"I gotta quit drinkin'," Shay observed philosophically.
His reflection grinned. "The situation isn't that drastic, though I will admit you look as if you've been overindulging of late. How old are you?"
"I'm the one asking questions here," Shay snapped.
"I'm the one with the gun," came the easy reply.
"Hell." Out of habit, Shay polished the star-shaped badge on his vest with his right shirt cuff. "I turned thirty last September."
"So did I."
"Well, write-home and hallelujah. I hope somebody baked you a cake."
The response was a slanted grin that gave Shay a whole new insight into why his pa had felt called upon to box his ears now and again. "Somebody did. I believe her name was Sue-Ellen. How long have you had this job, Marshal?"
Shay put his foot down, figuratively, at least. "Oh, no," he said. "I asked for your name, and I'm not saying anything else until I get it."
"Saint-Laurent," was the crisp reply. "Tristan." Still holding the gun, Saint-Laurent used the thumb of that same hand to scratch his chin.
Shay pondered the revelation, mentally leafing through the piles of wanted posters on his desk for a match, and was relieved when he came up dry. "It's plain that you've got me at a disadvantage," he said. "So why don't you just go ahead and tell me how the hell it happens that a man comes awake in the middle of the night to find a gun at his throat and his own face looking back at him?"
Saint-Laurent watched him narrowly for a few moments, as though making some kind of calculation, then threw down the cheroot and ground it out on the wood floor with the heel of one scuffed and mud-caked boot. "Your folks never told you what happened? How you were orphaned and all?"
Shay shook his head. He had two older sisters, Dorrie and Cornelia, and they'd wasted no time in letting him know he was a foundling, but they'd been nearly grown when he came along, and secretive about the details, probably because it gave them power over him. Neither his mother nor his father could be persuaded to part with the story; in fact, they'd taken it to their graves, dying within a year of each other, and he'd left off wondering a long time ago. Mostly.
Saint-Laurent sighed. "You must have reasoned it through by now," he said. "We started out from the same place, you and me. We were born in the Rockies, to a couple named Killigrew -- they were headed west with a wagon train, and both of them were real young. Our pa never even got a look at us -- he was killed by Indians while our mama was in labor. She died of grief and blood loss before the day was out."
The tale was briefly and bluntly told, and it bludgeoned Shay in a way he wouldn't have expected. He was grateful he was already sitting down, since he reckoned his knees might have given out, and for the first time in eighteen months, he was sober clear through to the middle of his brain. He thrust a hand through his hair but said nothing, not trusting himself to speak.
"I didn't know about it either, until last year, when I learned my mother was failing and went home to the ranch to see her. She told me the story then, and gave me a little remembrance book our mama kept."
"And you set out to find me?" The question came out as a rasp.
Saint-Laurent chuckled, fished another cheroot out of the inside pocket of his long, dusty gray coat and leaned over to light it from the flame in the kerosene lamp. He replaced the glass chimney before troubling himself to reply. "I didn't give a damn about you," he said. "After all, if I wanted to know what you looked like, all I had to do was look in a mirror. I meant to go my own way. But then, as they say in the melodramas, fate took a hand."
"How's that?" Shay asked, mildly insulted that his own brother hadn't taken more of an interest. Folks either loved him or hated him, but they generally committed themselves wholeheartedly to one view or the other.
Tristan looked him over, drew on the cheroot, and expelled the smoke, all without speaking. When he did open his mouth, he left Shay's question hanging in midair. "That stagecoach robbery, over near Cherokee Bluff," he said. "Were you wearing that badge when it happened?"r
Shay wished mightily that he were drunk again. A year and a half before, the driver, the guard and three passengers had been killed when a bridge blew up beneath the stage and sent the horses, the coach itself and everyone aboard crashing into a deep ravine. One of the victims, Miss Grace Warfield, had been his bride-to-be.
"Yeah," he ground out, after a long moment. "I was the marshal."
Tristan was mercifully silent.
Shay assembled words in his head and, with considerable difficulty, herded them over his tongue. "I rode out to meet them, when the coach didn't come in on time," he said. "Me and old Dutch Cooper, from over at the livery stable. We figured they'd broken an axle or one of the horses had thrown a shoe. We were maybe a mile off when we heard the explosion." He stopped, unable to go on, stricken to silence by visions of the terrible things he'd seen that day. Two of the horses were still alive when he and Dutch got there, and the dust had yet to settle. Bodies were scattered over both sides of the ravine, and the coach was in pieces, one wheel spinning slowly in the breeze. The splintered timbers of the bridge made a gruesome framework for it all.
He and Dutch had gone scrabbling down the steep incline, leaving their mounts untethered at the top. Dutch had shot the injured horses, while Shay had rushed from passenger to passenger -- an old man, a middle-aged woman, and Grace. His gentle, funny Grace.
He hadn't expected her back from San Francisco for another week -- she'd gone there to settle some business and buy a wedding dress, and apparently decided to surprise him by coming home early. Now she was lying on the ground, broken like a glass doll dropped from a great height.
He'd knelt there, gathered her up in his arms, rocking her, making a strange, howling sound that seemed to rise up out of the earth itself, through his knees and belly and chest. Just remembering wrung his stomach and brought out a cold sweat all over him.
"From the looks of you," Tristan observed, "I'd say you recall it, all right." He scratched his chin again. "I work for the man who owns that stage line," he said, at his leisure. "There was a good-sized payroll on board, on its way to the bank in Silver City. My employer would like to know where that money wound up, among other things."
Shay rubbed his eyes angrily with a thumb and forefinger. "Five people were killed that day," he said. "Was your 'employer' ever interested in that?"
"There wasn't a hell of a lot he could do about it," Tristan pointed out coolly. "The money, on the other hand, might be salvageable."
"It's scattered from here to Mexico City by now."
"You make any effort to find out what happened -- Marshal? Or were you already a drinkin' man by then?"
Shay spat a curse. "I raised a posse and tracked those bastards from one end of this state to the other. We never turned up so much as a nose hair."
"Could be they've been right here in Prominence, all along, blending in with the town folk. They didn't leave many clues behind, as I understand it."
"Just bodies and an empty strongbox," Shay said bitterly.
"You got a barber in this town?" Saint-Laurent shoved his .45 back into the holster and stood.
It took Shay a moment or two to catch up. "What?"
"If I'm going to live in polite company, I'd better get a shave and wash this walnut juice out of my hair. Do you have a home, Marshal, or do you just wear those same clothes every day and live right here at the jail?"
Shay stood, hands raised to chest level, palms out. "Wait just a damn minute, here. You may be my brother, but you're a mite too free with your insults for my taste. And why in hell and tarnation would anybody put walnut juice in their hair?"
Tristan reached for the pistol he'd taken from Shay and handed it over. Shay might not have spoken at all for all the mind his brother paid. "It's going to be a shock to the town, I imagine, there being two of us. We'd best take things slowly. Roust the barber out of bed and fetch him over here. And borrow a washtub and some soap while you're about it."
"If you're through spouting orders," Shay said, passing his brother in the open doorway of the cell, "maybe I can get a word in sideways." He went to the stove, jerked open the door, and stirred the embers with a poker. The coffee in the blue enamel pot on top was two days old, by his reckoning, which ought to give it some kick. "First of all, if you want a bath and a barber, you just take yourself down the street to the hotel and hire a room. And don't be trying to give anybody the impression that you're me, if that's what you've got in mind. I've lived in this town all my life and these folks know me. They'd see right through you."
"What good is being a twin if you can't fool a few people now and then?" Tristan smoothed his beard, sighed and grinned again. "I imagine you're right, though. They've probably forgotten what you look like sober. And when was the last time you took a bath?"
Shay added fresh grounds to the moldering brew in the coffeepot, grasped the handle, and gave it a shake for good measure. "I've taken all the guff I want from you," he said.
"You got a woman?" Tristan watched him with interest, waiting for an answer.
For no earthly reason, Shay thought of Aislinn Lethaby, over at the hotel dining hall, where he took his supper whenever he couldn't cadge a meal from one of his sisters. She was tall, with dark hair and whiskey-brown eyes, and about as different from Grace as one woman could be from another. She belonged, as it happened, to the growing and outspoken faction that found him objectionable, and she seldom missed a chance to let him know it. "No," he said. Since Grace's death, he'd taken his none-too-discreet comforts with a certain widow of faulty reputation and left off courting altogether.
But he thought about Aislinn, all right. He thought about her a lot.
Tristan stood in the doorway to Shay's office now, arms folded, leaning against the woodwork. He looked like a trail bum, and it nettled some to know he counted himself too fancy to be taken for Shay. "Damn, but you feel sorry for yourself, don't you?" Tristan asked. He blew out a brief, disgusted snort. "You know, little brother, before I leave this hind-tit town, I'm going to make a point of kicking your ass from howdy-do to farewell. It's long overdue, I can see that."
Shay had been stuffing more wood into the stove, in hopes of heating the sludge in the coffeepot. At Tristan's words, however, he straightened, and let his hands rest on his hips. "Maybe you'd like to start right now," he said evenly. He could do with a good brawl, no holds barred, and since Prominence was mostly a quiet town, he didn't get many such opportunities. "And I'll thank you not to call me 'little brother.'"
Tristan thrust himself away from the woodwork, strolled over, and reached for the coffeepot. Flipping up the lid with a motion of his thumb, he peered inside and grimaced. "You aren't much of a cook, either." With that, he took the pot to the door and flung the contents into the street. Then he returned, ladled in some water from a bucket on a bench near the stove, sloshed it around in the pot and threw that water out, too. When he'd assembled a fresh batch and put it on to brew, and only then, he addressed Shay again. "Just think," he said, "how much you might accomplish if you could be in two places at once."
Shay was intrigued, in spite of himself. The prospect of finding the men who'd murdered Grace and the others in the course of the robbery had new appeal, now that his head was clear, and it didn't seem quite so hopeless as before. Somehow, he'd gotten stuck behind that incident, and he knew it had to be resolved before he could move on. "We'd never be able to keep something like this a secret," he pointed out. "Prominence is a small town."
"I just want to keep folks guessing, confuse them a little. Stir things up and see what happens." He paused thoughtfully, then flashed an amicable grin. "Tell the barber I'll shoot him in both knees if he says a word about there being two of us," he said. "That's news I'd like to break in my own time." Spotting the shaving mirror next to the stove, he stooped to peer into it. "And don't forget to bring me a bathtub."
He looked halfway decent for a change, Aislinn thought uncharitably, as she set a plate of bacon, eggs and fried potatoes down in front of Marshal McQuillan. He'd had his hair trimmed up, and there was a pinkish glow about him, as if somebody had scrubbed him down with a wire brush.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, with that tilted grin that always made Aislinn mad enough to spit. It wasn't so much the audacity it conveyed that stirred her temper as her own involuntary response, a warm, aching shift, somewhere deep down, in a place nobody had any business affecting. Shay McQuillan in particular; he was trouble, and every woman in town knew it, though some were not dissuaded by this simple wisdom.
She'd already reached up and patted her dark hair, in back where the pins usually came loose, before she caught herself. She felt color sting her cheekbones, and turned around so fast to make her escape that she nearly collided with Cletus Frye, the undertaker. She thought she heard the marshal chuckle under his breath, but she couldn't be certain.
"Good morning, Miss Lethaby," Cletus said, removing his hat. Cletus was unfailingly polite, and not hard to look at, either, with his thick, russet-colored hair and earnest brown eyes, but he was courting one of the other girls, Suzanne. Aislinn wasn't looking for a husband anyway.
"Cletus," Aislinn replied, with a distracted little nod. The morning stage had just pulled in across the street, and there were cattlemen in town, too, since several ranches in the area were hiring. There was no time to dally.
Throughout the coming hour, as she rushed from kitchen to dining room, carrying trays and coffeepots and bearing away dirty dishes, however, her gaze kept straying to the marshal's table, where he lingered, reading a newspaper and sipping his coffee. What was worse, he somehow managed to intercept every single glance and smile at her, each time, slow and easy. By the time he left, her nerves had all congregated in the pit of her stomach, where they bounced like a handful of acorns dropped into a bucket.
She took momentary refuge on the porch off the hotel's kitchen, bunching her long apron into one hand and blotting her face and the back of her neck with it.
"What's got you so riled, girl?" demanded Eugenie, the sturdy, rough-voiced woman who ran the kitchen. "You look like somebody what's been throwed headfirst into a nettle patch and dragged back out by the ankles."
Aislinn took a deep breath and smiled. The work at the hotel was hard, but Eugenie looked after her "girls," made sure they didn't go astray and genuinely cared about their well-being. They were required to attend church on Sundays, write to their folks once a week if they had any, keep their shoes polished and their pinafores starched crisp and mended, and return to the dormitory in the stuffy hotel attic before eight P.M., provided they weren't working the supper shift. In that case, they had until ten. "I'm all right," she said. "Really."
Eugenie grinned, revealing one or two gaps in an otherwise substantial set of teeth. "That McQuillan boy cleaned up pretty good," she commented. "If I was thirty years younger, I might just lasso him for myself."
Aislinn ran the sleeve of her dress across her forehead. It was hot, and her white pinafore, fresh and perfect just a few hours before, was now wilted and smudged. "I'm surprised at you, Eugenie. You're one of the smartest women I know. I wouldn't have thought you could be fooled by such a man."
"What do you mean, 'such a man'?" Eugenie retorted. She seemed disgruntled, but then, that was a part of her usual countenance.
"Well, look at him," Aislinn whispered. "He's drunk more often than not. He doesn't shave for days at a time, and nobody ever sleeps in that jailhouse but him. He'd be nothing more than a saddle bum if he weren't too lazy to mount a horse. If you ask me, he's a disgrace to the badge!"
"He's a good man who got his heart broke real bad," Eugenie said quietly. "The woman he meant to marry was killed less than two years back, and a thing like that can be mighty hard to get over."
Aislinn could have argued that other people faced tragedy and went on; she'd done so herself, after the fire, and so had her two young brothers, but she saw by the expression in Eugenie's eyes that it would serve no purpose. Besides, she was private about her past, and she hadn't confided in anyone. "I'd better get back to work," she said, and hurried inside.
The kitchen was sweltering, and the dining room, brimming with hungry cowboys and other wayfaring souls, wasn't much cooler. After a quick trip upstairs to change her pinafore, Aislinn threw herself into waiting tables and, by midafternoon, when her shift ended, she was tuckered out.
While the two other young women who'd served breakfast and dinner with her stripped to their petticoats and collapsed onto their cots, however, Aislinn untied her shoes, kicked them off, and put on a plain brown calico dress. After hanging her garments carefully on their allotted pegs, she took down her hair, brushed and wound it into a single heavy plait, splashed her face with tepid water, and started for the door.
"Aislinn Lethaby," scolded her friend, Eloise, from one of the narrow beds, "I swear it makes me weary just to know you. Where are you off to on such a hot afternoon?"
"I just need a walk, that's all."
"A walk?" scoffed another of the serving girls. "You're not even wearing any shoes. Besides, you've been on your feet all day."
Aislinn didn't pause to explain that she never wore shoes if she could help it. She and her brothers had grown up wild as renegade Apaches, back in Maine, and they'd gone barefoot from the day school let out until the first hard frost. She still loved the feel of green grass and good dirt under her feet better than most anything else, and when she was outside, she could be that other, younger Aislinn, with parents and at home.
She left the hotel by a rear door, and followed a narrow alley that ran parallel to Prominence's main street, gnawing on an apple snatched from the pantry as she passed.
Dorrie McQuillan, the marshal's sister, was sitting on the little porch behind the general store, calmly smoking a long, slim cigar. Miss Dorrie, with her dishwater-blond hair and thin-lashed brown eyes, was not a handsome woman, being tall and thin and somewhat dour of expression, but it was rumored that she'd once run away with a peddler. Her father, Shamus the elder, had caught up with them just in time, folks said. He'd beat the daylights out of the rascal, had him jailed and dragged his daughter home by the hair.
Aislinn nodded cordially, and Miss Dorrie returned the favor, blowing out a shifting cloud of blue smoke. You didn't have to live in Prominence too long to learn that Miss Dorrie was a great trial to her sister, Miss Cornelia, who had a head for figures and had never eloped, taken strong spirits or smoked a cigar. No doubt having the marshal in the family circle was an additional cross for Cornelia, who was a very beautiful woman, for all her coldness of manner, with clouds of auburn hair and bright green eyes.
Aislinn smiled to herself and picked up her pace. She passed the feed store, the telegraph office, and the doctor's, and then there was nothing between her and the open countryside but the saloon. She moved to the farthest side of the alley and walked purposefully, with squared shoulders, her eyes fixed straight ahead.
She had cause to give the place a wide berth -- once, she'd seen a man relieving himself through the open door, and another time, she'd been forced to fend off the advances of a drunkard. Still, it was better to pass behind the saloon, because the front was far more perilous, with cowboys and drifters and gamblers constantly trailing in and out in various states of temper and inebriation. The very men who treated her politely in the dining room could turn into fiends, whether filled with drink or just the prospect of it.
"Probably not the best place to take a stroll, ma'am," observed a familiar voice, just when she thought she'd passed by unnoticed. She didn't need to look at the marshal to know he was the one talking to her. She turned her head, a quelling glance at the ready, but at the mere sight of him, it seemed that her heart slammed itself into her throat. His badge shone in the sunlight and his clothes were clean, if well worn. How could a bath and barbering change a man so much?
"I appreciate your concern, Marshal," she said. "Of course, if you would do something about the criminal element in this town, a woman could walk safely anywhere."
He grinned that grin -- he should have had a license for it, in her opinion, because it was unquestionably as lethal as the gun on his hip. "You're right," he said, with a touch to the brim of his hat. "I've been remiss in my peacekeeping." He was chewing on a matchstick, and he rolled it from one side of his mouth to the other as he pushed away from the saloon doorway to approach. "I'll escort you wherever you're going. Make sure you get there all right."
Aislinn felt her neck heat up, and hoped the flush wouldn't climb into her face. "No, thank you," she said. "I'm fine on my own."
"I'm afraid I can't take no for an answer, ma'am," he replied, with a note of genial regret. "Why, how could I sleep at night, knowing I'd let a poor, helpless little thing like you walk past a saloon without the full protection of the law?"
rShe expelled a sigh. "Helpless? Believe me, Marshal, I can look after myself." If he only knew, she thought, and was tempted to enlighten him, as to all she'd survived in her life. All she'd overcome.
"I reckon if that were the case," he said, showing no inclination to retreat, "you wouldn't have felt compelled to mention your concern about the safety of our female citizens."
The end of the alleyway was in sight; the graveyard next to the Presbyterian church was just ahead, set apart from the scourge of commerce by a split-rail fence. Beyond the church was a spring-fed pond, and a big, sun-bathed rock where Aislinn loved to sit, dreaming and dangling her feet in the water.
Her patience was hard-won, but she managed to speak calmly, and with dignity. She turned and looked up into McQuillan's face. "You have made your point," she said firmly, and she knew her eyes were flashing. "Now, kindly let me go my way. There are those of us who work for a living, and our free time is precious."
He laughed, swept off his hat and struck himself in the chest with it, as if to stanch a bleeding wound. His hair was the palest gold and at once ruffled and sleek, though in need of trimming. It glinted in the sunshine, like stuff spun from a sorcerer's spindle, while his eyes were so dark a blue as to seem almost purple. She'd been serving him meals most every day for a year. Why hadn't she noticed, in all that time, just how devastatingly, dangerously good-looking he was?
"I can see I'm going to have my work cut out for me, ma'am," he said, "but I'm determined to win your confidence. Yes, indeed, I am determined."
Aislinn turned, hoisted her skirts as far as she dared, and started up the cemetery fence. "Please don't trouble yourself," she said, perched astride the top rail. "Good day, Marshal." Having so spoken, she made to jump down on the other side, caught her dress on a splinter or some such, and landed in the grass in an ungainly heap, her skirts over her head.
Face aflame, heart pounding with humiliation, Aislinn scrambled to her feet, just as the lawman vaulted over the fence. He was making a downright heroic effort not to laugh, but she was in no position to appreciate the sacrifice. "Are you all right?" he asked, touching her cheek with the backs of his fingers in a curiously gentle way.
Aislinn busied herself, brushing off her skirts and smoothing her hair, which had begun to come loose from its careful braid. When she looked at him, her eyes were full of angry tears, and she would have choked if she'd tried to speak.
"You are hurt," he said, and he sounded genuinely worried. He shifted, so that they were very close, and she felt the heat and easy, restrained power of him. For one wonderful, dreadful moment, she thought he was going to kiss her. Then, in the next instant, he stepped back. "Guess it's mostly your pride that's smarting right now." He put his hat on, and she saw a wicked humor in his eyes, though he had the decency not to grin. "I'd best be getting back, I suppose."
Back to the saloon, Aislinn thought ungenerously, but at the same time she was feeling a tenderness toward this man that she couldn't account for, even to herself. Maybe Eugenie was right, and Shay McQuillan really was a good man, through the worst of his grieving and ready to go on.
"Did you love her?" She had never planned to ask such a bold and impertinent question; the words came out by themselves. "Grace, I mean?"
He turned, thumbs hooked into his gunbelt, eyes hidden in the shadow cast by his hat brim. "Yes," he answered, seriously and without hesitation. "Very much."
Aislinn stood for a moment, taking a new measure of Shay McQuillan. She'd been so certain, until he'd spoken those few telling words, that she understood the workings of his mind and the substance of his spirit. While she watched him, he climbed over the fence and walked away, headed toward Main Street.
When she reached the pond, she found it peaceful, dappled with sunlight and windblown leaves. As she climbed onto the favored rock and settled herself there, she saw a deer approach the water's edge on the opposite side. After studying her intently, the animal lowered its graceful head to drink, sending delicate, silvery ripples fanning out over the surface.
Aislinn slid to the stone's edge and slipped her feet into the water, and the sensation was so delicious that she let her head fall back and gave a long sigh. Then she unraveled her braid and combed her hair with her fingers, letting it tumble down past her shoulders to reach her waist.
The moment might in fact have been perfect, had it not been for the disturbing, persistent awareness that by changing something in himself, Shay McQuillan had changed something in her as well.
Copyright © 1998 by Linda Lael Miller